Maryland lawmakers will convene a special investigative committee to look into allegations that an aide to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. engaged in political dirty tricks and participated in what one House leader called "potentially illegal hiring and firing practices."
House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) said the probe will start in April, immediately after the legislature adjourns its regular 90-day session. He said that details of the inquiry have not been set but that it might be conducted with the help of an independent counsel, who would be granted subpoena power. "It's something we've never done, but we've never seen behavior like this," Busch said.
Busch said the investigation will focus on the activities of Joseph Steffen, a longtime Ehrlich aide who boasted in Internet postings of an orchestrated effort to "give float" to rumors that one of the governor's political rivals had an extramarital affair.
Busch said numerous state workers have contacted lawmakers and identified Steffen as one of several mid-level aides who allegedly moved from one state agency to another, making lists of people they believed were disloyal to Ehrlich (R) and should be fired.
Ehrlich aides have called those allegations nonsense, and Ehrlich spokesman Henry Fawell said yesterday that while they welcome any inspection of Steffen's activities, the probe sounded "a lot more like a political sideshow."
"The vast majority of Republicans and Democrats in the General Assembly are focused on the session," Fawell said. "That's where the speaker should be. The speaker should be focused on getting a slots bill to the governor's desk and not worried about grandstanding."
House and Senate leaders have said repeatedly that they do not want to embark on a political witch hunt. They said they reluctantly concluded that the investigation was warranted after seeing a Washington Post report last week about electronic mail released by the administration.
The documents suggested that Steffen had been given authority to operate outside the state bureaucracy's chain of command. On several occasions, Steffen wrote in e-mails that he was acting "on behalf of the governor," and even though he was assigned to the state Department of Human Resources, he signed his notes with the title special assistant to the governor.
In one e-mail to his then-boss, Byron J. Harris, chief of staff to Human Resources Secretary Christopher J. McCabe, Steffen wrote that he did not need the secretary's approval for any of his activities.
"Though it doesn't need to be said, I have full authority, indeed I am at times directed/mandated, to contact individuals directly regarding meetings and other requests on behalf of the governor," Steffen wrote.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Thomas M. Middleton (D-Charles) called the documents troubling evidence "that what was going on was an abuse of power and office."
"Under the circumstances, I think the public would expect us to look into it," he said.
Busch said he was most troubled by fired state employees' allegations that they were tormented by Steffen, who referred to himself as the Prince of Darkness, and by others.
"This is about protecting the workforce of Maryland," Busch said. "I don't think decent people should be treated this way by someone who is nothing more than a second-rate Tony Soprano running around the Ehrlich administration."